Northwords Now Issue 34

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Slavonic Dances: Mrs Makarowski, The Kilt, The Carrying Stream by Tom Hubbard

Grace Notes Publications

A Review by Jane Verburg

This sequence of three connected novellas addresses historical and cultural threads between Scotland and Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia. Mrs Makarowski features a Fife woman who marries a Polish soldier stationed in the area during the war. The story moves between the 1940s and the present-day. The Kilt introduces us to a Scottish student visiting Czechoslovakia just prior to the Prague Spring. Love-struck Angus’ life is disrupted and it takes many years for him to discover some of the personal stories behind that event. The Carrying Stream (what a beautiful name) focuses on the memories of a Glaswegian poet, Martin Meikle, who fell in love with the music of the Russian composer, Mussorgsky.

Tom Hubbard is an experienced writer, researcher and editor with an encyclopaedic knowledge of European cultures and languages. He was the first Librarian of the Scottish Poetry Library and has worked as a visiting university professor in France, Hungary and the USA. It is with this understanding that we read these novellas, knowing we are in the hands of a “polyglot and a polymath” (as he is described in the Preface by David Betteridge).

Each story delves deep into the histories of these two-way relationships and their apparent impact on the personal. There are many literary references and many quotations. Race, class, war, music, poetry and the connect-ness of cultures are touched on. Maybe too much is touched on and too many characters drawn. Dialogue is skilfully handled and a glossary helps out when required.

Reading these novellas I felt as if I were being taught and educated. I felt tasked to go and Google all those things I did not know about. I felt as if my role as a reader were taken from me and that I had become a pupil. The stories were more about the writer teaching me about his knowledge and the historic settings than about the characters within them. For me there was too much exposition. I found myself wondering if all that ‘poly-ness’ gets in the way of simple, character-driven fiction writing. I did not find the heart of Mrs Makarowski. I did not stare into the soul of Angus or Martin. There are many types of landscapes to explore - historical, geographical, cultural. The interior, secret landscape is where the best short story writing settles and this was missing for these characters.

Hubbard did make me want to learn more about some of the references listed in Slavonic Dances and to this effect he may have achieved his own real goal.